By Andrew Allison, Chief Executive
Photo Credit: Wernervc
Today the nation paused for two minutes to remember those who have died defending our country, and defending freedom and democracy in Europe and throughout the world.
As I write, ahead of me in a display case are the medals of my great uncle. Sergeant William Woodward 21605, served in the 13th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. He was killed on 7 October 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, and is buried in the military cemetery in Bazentin- le-Petit. (Pictured above) I have visited his grave on two occasions - and on both occasions I have stayed in Amiens, a 40-minute drive away from William’s final resting place.
As you leave the historic city of Amiens, with its striking cathedral, you enter some of the most beautiful countryside in France. As you look around you admiring the view, it is hard to believe that so many men lost their lives in the battle which started in the heat of summer on 1 July 1916. But you are not allowed to forget - there are constant reminders along the way such as the town of Albert, with its Musée Somme, and the Pozieres Memorial. The Thiepval Memorial is not far away.
The military cemetery at Bazentin-le-Petit has 168 graves, all beautifully kept under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). One thing our great country does very well is looking after the final resting places of our war dead. I have visited many memorials and graves in the Somme and Normandy, and the standards of the CWGC are always impeccably high.
Although I have never had this story corroborated, I have been told that William was injured during the battle and was taken away in a field ambulance - which was not an ambulance as we would think of it now. It was a was a mobile front-line medical unit manned by troops of the Royal Army Medical Corps. As they were taking him to safety, they took a hit and he was killed.
He was a regular soldier, joining the army when he was 18 years old in 1908. During the Battle of the Somme, because of the mounting casualties, he was quickly promoted from Lance Corporal, to Corporal, to Lance Sergeant. Like so many of his generation he had never travelled far away from home as he was growing up. I don’t know why he joined the army, but many of his school friends would have become miners in the many pits surrounding Bishop Auckland. I suspect he didn’t want to do follow suit, and the army gave him the opportunity to avoid a life working underground.
But although he joined the army rather than going down the pit, many of his school friends will have joined him in the trenches. Forget the lions led by donkeys analogy, too. Seventy-eight generals were killed in the First World War (which includes the former rank of Brigadier General). Being a second lieutenant was a death sentence - the life expectancy of a junior officer on the Western Front was just six weeks. Almost everyone knew someone who had lost a loved one - or had lost a loved one themselves. I am enormously proud of my great uncle and the men he led during days which must have been a living hell.
I am also enormously proud of my country. When an aggressive Germany was on the rampage, we stepped up to the plate - twice. For over two years from 1939 to 1941 we battled Nazi Germany single-handedly on the Western Front. If it wasn’t for this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the map of Europe wouldn’t look the same as it does today.
Those who fought and died gave their today for our tomorrow. Unlike my great uncle, we are unlikely to have to fight for freedom with our blood. We are lucky. He was not. Lest we forget.